Home Public Transit Policy Musings on a zone-based fare proposal

Musings on a zone-based fare proposal

by Benjamin Kabak

This map shows New York City's Community Boards shaded by median household income. Click to enlarge.

As the MTA has struggled to find money, its fare policies have increasingly come under the microscope. Without substantial state support, the only way the MTA can close its budget gaps is through fare hikes or restructuring the way we pay. The current flat fare is a solution that serves to equalize the amount everyone pays to ride the subway. While discounted unlimited ride cards give some folks a benefit, the base fare is the same from Inwood to the Rockaways.

Across the world, different subway systems treat fares different. We have to travel no further than Washington, D.C., to find distance-based fares, and London’s Underground is famous for its fare zones. In D.C., the further one needs to travel, the more the ride will cost. In London, the further away one gets from the central business district, the more one must travel. If a straphanger’s ride doesn’t enter Zone 1 but crosses multiple zones, the fares go up accordingly.

Recently on SAS, as I discussed how high the fares could go, those who comment on the site wondered about a zone-based fare system. Our system’s turnstiles can be configured for swipes upon exit, and the fare system could be reconfigured for zones or distance. (The comment thread begins right here and continues on for a bit.)

Now, my objections to zone-based fares cover a few topics. First, while distance- or zone-based fare systems are in place elsewhere, they seem prevalent in systems that cross city limits. The London Underground extends well beyond the City of London, and in fact, the local governmental unit that makes up the City is all in Zone 1. In D.C, however, distance-based fares pay no attention to city boundaries.

But because so many people — 5 million per day — use the subway system to get to work and because the city would not exist as a major economic hub without the subway, a distance or zone system seems inherently unfair to me. It penalizes people because there isn’t enough space on the island of Manhattan for all of us.

My second complaint involves the map at the top of this post. Using the Furman Center’s 2009 State of the City report, I color-coded community board district by median annual income. Perhaps I could have used colors that were more contrasting, but in general, the darker the shade, the richer the community board. As a baseline, the two South Bronx communities in light pink have median annual incomes below $20,000 while the Upper East and West Sides are above $100,000.

If you were to overlay a subway map on top of this socioeconomic representation of the city, it becomes tougher to justify a zone fare. Suddenly, the richest folks in the city are the ones who are closest to work and can most afford to pay higher. In Brooklyn, the poorest residents down in the Coney Island area live furthest away, and in Queens, Astoria and its neighbors to the south are richer than those from Flushing who are further away from the city.

Only in the Bronx would a distance-based fare make sense because incomes rise as we head north, but even then, the folks in the South Bronx make around 18 percent of what those who live in the East and West 80s in Manhattan do. If the subway is supposed to be a public good that allows for people of any income bracket to get to their jobs in a cost-efficient way, New York’s socioeconomics seem to make a zone- or distance-based fare highly problematic.

Ultimately, I don’t think zone-based fares are the answer for New York City. Once upon a time, when richer folk left the urban core for the supposed comforts of the suburban sprawl, a zone system might have made sense. But in today’s New York, those who can least afford to pay would be forced to hand over more dollars under a zone fare regime while the city’s wealthiest don’t. Unless the MTA were to create a convoluted fare system that pits intraborough Manhattan travel against interborough travel, we’ll be stuck, for better or worse, with a flat fare system.

You may also like


John-2 April 12, 2011 - 1:32 am

The other thing that works against a zone system is the convoluted nature of the lines as they enter and leave Manhattan The IRT is a pretty straightforward north-south alignment on it’s trunk lines, while the Flushing line is more of an east-west direction, but the B Division’s BMT and IND routes that make two East River crossings on their trips create the same sort of problem that D.C. has with doing the pricing for trips like from the Pentagon to L’Enfant Plaza. Pre-Yellow line, that was an eight-stop trip on the Blue line and was priced accordingly; once WMATA’s Potomac Bridge was completed, suddenly those stations were one stop apart, and charging by distance became a little more problematic.

Someone in NYC going from Court Square to Bergen Street would create the same pricing quandary though not as stark a contrast as in D.C.; does a rider get a discount for taking the G and skipping the trip via Manhattan on the F, or does the fare actually go up for stations long the F line in Manhattan and then back down again when the train returns across the East River? Same deal in Manhattan with a Canal Street to 59th-and-Lex trip, where the prices for taking the N/R vs. taking the 6 would have to be calculated and fare costs for in-between stations on the longer BMT routes would have to be matched so that you didn’t end up giving people a discount for taking the more direct IRT (and any pricing system that put more people on the Lex wouldn’t be such a hot idea to begin with).

Benjamin Kabak April 12, 2011 - 1:41 am

Isn’t that where zone-based fares come into play then? Manhattan is zone 1; the areas surrounding it are zone 2; further out in Borough Park/Flushing, you get zone 3. That’s how London does it, but here, the socioeconomics of it break down a bit.

John-2 April 12, 2011 - 2:45 am

I suppose if you group all of Manhattan from the Battery to at least 59th you could do that; otherwise you might end up with lines exiting and re-entering zones within the borough, if you did some sort of east side/west side split (such as the above-mentioned N/R vs. the 6 between Canal and 59th-Lex of the impending bi-directional Bleecker-53rd Lex option between the 6 and the M).

Flat zone fares, similar to the old Rockaways double-fare arrangement, where if you pass point A and enter a new zone you pay fare X-plus, would be easier to implement, but still create potential problems beyond the question of forcing the people with the least disposable income to pay the most for their transportation (as in, should a two-mile trip from Fort Green to Fulton Street Lower Manhattan on the A cost more than an 11-mile trip from Fort Washington on the A to Fulton, since the latter is within the same borough?)

Bolwerk April 13, 2011 - 10:36 am

That’s an interesting point because perhaps such a system could also encourage utilization of under-utilized lines. Swipe into the G instead of staying on the F, and get a discount when you leave. Though this is less useful now that the G no longer goes to Queens Boulevard.

Esteban April 12, 2011 - 1:46 am

Ha yea, Main Street on the 7 FTL.

pea-jay April 12, 2011 - 2:16 am

My personal thought is to use a simplified variant of the zone. EVERYBODY understands the concept of the borough and given the size and diversity of land uses within each charging any ride within a borough a lower rate/charge, a fair number of users would benefit and it might incentivise more folks to make a short jaunt a few stops rather than walk it or not make the trip at all. Charge lets say $2 for these trips as base fare (factoring in what 2013 pricing could be here).

At the same time, charging more to cross a borough boundary would reflect the greater distance that trip represents. I only advocate for charging an interborough fare, not charge by the number of boundaries crossed. Most trips from one borough to another only cross one boundary anyway and by charging the same to ride between any borough, it keeps the pricing simple. Again, most folks understand this geographic concept, current MTA maps already identify the boroughs (i’d HATE to see them squish in ZONES to their existing map) and it would not take much explaining. Base fare for the Interborough fare could be $3.

Finally, the touchy issue. Manhattan Pricing. To squeeze out additional dollars, do so to the area that has the lowest rate of personal vehicles available to a household, greatest access to transit and arguably benefits the most from transit availability AND (from 96/110 southward) a pretty high household incomes. These areas are probably least likely to see transit fall-off as a result of fare hikes, rather than a more distant resident of an outer borough that has a car available for use. Charge a higher fee for manhattan-only trips. Maybe $2.50. Or maybe even $3. Space is a premium on the streets and sidewalks, but the subsurface areas are also pretty in-demand as well. Take advantage of that.

Month passes would be needed to be structured similarly price-wise if a same-borough pass was offered and allow the pass user to maintain a supplemental balance for the occasional interborough upgrade fare were needed (the difference between a single ride borough fare and the all city one). In the scenario above, that would be a buck.

Of course making driving more expensive would induce greater transit use. Gas prices will do that without any government interference but congestion pricing and parking fees/metering in more places will also help.

Finally, the turnstiles. I know they can be used bi-directionally but with a simple borough scheme, many folks would pay the full rate and would just want to exit out of the system as fast as possible. Waiting to exit out of a busy station after several trains let out and mobs of folks want in at the same time would add a level of suck to the commute that just isnt necessary. Put little credit-back readers outside the paid area of any station and let those that want to be credited back for a cheaper fare get that credited back while everyone else can just get on their way.

R. Graham April 12, 2011 - 2:59 am

This has job killer and gentrification written all over it. Been trying to convert those public housing projects to condos for years without success? Well no worries we have the perfect answer for you. A zone transit fare system where those living to the north and east of Manhattan can’t possibly afford to pay and will eventually skip town. This town will no longer be for the small business and working families.

I say it time and again. An affordable subway fare is key for jobs! If a college student can’t afford the fare because his job doesn’t pay him/her enough to travel to school and work then that job will eventually not exist because if you can afford such a steep fare then you don’t really need that job to begin with.

Hank April 12, 2011 - 10:56 am

Couldn’t agree more. As a former DC resident, where the distance pricing actually helped poore people who lived in the central areas as the wealthier suburban commuters paid more, it can work the other way.

However, zone/distance pricing in Manhattan would not only be ridiculously hard to implement, but would penalize the poorer people from the outer boroughs who rely on the subway to commute.

(However, it would provide even MORE subsidies to the uber-privileged Manahattan public housing market, so why not?)

Anon256 April 12, 2011 - 3:49 am

Maybe just charge a lower fare for trips that don’t enter Manhattan, since that’s where the congestion is? I would think people who commute primarily within outer boroughs are more likely to be employed in small business/service industry and thus have even lower incomes than the average outer-borough resident. Transit is also in more direct competition with driving for non-Manhattan trips.

There is no reason everybody who crowds the train in Manhattan shouldn’t continue to pay the same fare, whether they got on at 86th or 238th, but if this fare has to rise then it might make sense to spare those who are only riding further out from the increase. To the extent this had any economic side effects, it would be to support businesses within the outer boroughs, without putting them at a disadvantage to Manhattan in any way.

All that said, the overhead and crowding issues from making everyone swipe to exit probably mean such a scheme would not be worthwhile.

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 5:08 am

Bleh. My thoughts:

1. This is a values question, and values questions should be done after a long process of community consultation and consensus, rather than as a quick and dirty way to sell a spending cut in a recession.

2. The turnstiles could in principle be equipped for two-way swipes, but only at a cost of further congesting station exits.

3. Borough boundaries could help set up zone boundaries, but reducing everything to boroughs is pointless. You want to encourage as much off-peak, off-CBD ridership as possible, since it’s effectively free to provide. London doesn’t break things down based on boroughs, either. (Nor does Paris break them down based on department, or Tokyo based on ward… you get my drift.)

4. The City of London = the medieval boundaries of London. The equivalent of the Five Boroughs is Greater London, which contains nearly all London Underground stations. The same is true of Tokyo.

Marc Shepherd April 12, 2011 - 8:03 am

The problem with the station exits is especially acute. To maintain adequate exit volume, many more exit portals would be needed. The major London stations have many more turnstiles than the New York stations do.

On top of that, there are many station exits that don’t have MetroCard readers (e.g., the old “iron maiden” exits). You’d also need to position vending machines inside the fare control, for those who exit the train with insufficient fare on their card.

It would be an expensive retrofit.

pea-jay April 12, 2011 - 10:21 am

that’s why you don’t do that. Charge the maximum fare to everyone and then provide credit-returning machines OUTSIDE the fare controlled area to credit back the unused portion of the fare. It would be easier to make many of those machines available and spread those through out the unpaid area. No dramatic exit reconfiguration needed nor will it make removal of auxillary exits necessary.

pete April 12, 2011 - 1:24 pm

The DC Metro’s 2nd generation (not 1st gen paper) RFID cards can accumulate a negative balance. The WMATA isn’t ripped off, since the RFID card cost $5 empty. The DC Metro’s 1st gen paper cards require “exit fare” vending machines that let you add enough cash to exit at the station. The RFID cards were given negative balances so the “exit fare” machines didn’t have to be reconfigured for the new RFID cards. If you don’t have the cash to exit, I’m not sure what happens. Do you have to go back to the station you swiped in at to get out?

SEAN April 12, 2011 - 2:40 pm

You must repay the negative ballence the next time before entering.

Matthias April 13, 2011 - 11:23 am

If you don’t have the cash to exit, you ask the station manager nicely and they let you out. There’s not really anything else to do, since it’s usually just an issue of 5 cents or so.

Bolwerk April 13, 2011 - 10:50 am

I’m always amused the City of London is still a legal, separate city – even though it functions more like the Financial District in Manhattan. (What we call London is more like a regional government. It’s bizarre. More bizarre than New York.) A tourist is more likely to stay in Westminster, also a legal city separate from the City of London (but still part of Greater London, I believe also entirely in Zone 1).

NYC borough borders, with the possible exception of Brooklyn, are simple historical accidents. There’s no reason to treat them as anything special.

Alon Levy April 14, 2011 - 3:12 am

London boundaries are even more historically accidental than New York boundaries – hence, the separate City of London.

Brooklyn is as historically accidental as the rest of the boroughs, except part of its boundary with Queens has been shifted slightly to prevent it from going through buildings.

Bolwerk April 14, 2011 - 1:03 pm

I just meant the borders were arbitrary to begin with and stuck after the city unified. The former city of Brooklyn would make sense as a distinct entity itself, although you’re right that most of the borough now is just as arbitrary as Queens. Except for the rather distinct cities of Brooklyn and New York, there could have been almost any arrangement when unification happened. We just happened to pick the pre-existing counties – I guess ’cause, why not?

Billy G April 12, 2011 - 7:31 am

The responsibility of the MTA is to get people from place to place, not redistribute wealth. If someone lives in Queens or the Bronx and works in Manhattan, let them pay to use the subway commensurate with the requirements of maintaining that infrastructure.

Marc Shepherd April 12, 2011 - 8:08 am

In case you haven’t noticed, the government has been in the wealth-redistribution business for many decades. The original city-mandated five-cent fare was a huge exercise in sharing the wealth. Whether or not that was a good idea, the whole system was built on that premise, and it cannot easily be changed without huge economic dislocations.

If the legislature wasn’t willing to approve East River bridge tolls — another attempt to get people to pay for the infrastructure they use — just imagine their reaction to this proposal!!

Nathan H. April 12, 2011 - 11:59 pm

Our government hasn’t been in any business for many decades. It has eschewed all forms of revenue, giving out one flavor of candy to the Left and one to the Right. I can’t disgree with you about the raw inertia of American governance, Marc. But a person who jumps off a building also has a great deal of momentum, right until he hits the ground.

I do take issue with the origin story of a redistributive subway. Although this has been one moral strategy of a liberal city in an illiberal country, its degree of fare flatness has varied. We had fewer free transfers available 50 years ago, and people riding only one transport paid less in inflation adjusted dollars than now. Today, people riding only a bus are subsidizing people riding buses and trains. Is that supposed to be a great victory for American Liberalism?

Not that I think the city or the transit movement is ready to fight for fare zones. But I do disagree with a purportedly principled stand against distance-based fares. This principle is revealed as arbitrary when put against regional rail or any other transportation. Transit advocates should at least be willing to consider fares that are based on distance and congestion. There is no practical reason for bankers commuting from the UES to the Financial District to pay the lowest fares in the system, not for a line in such high demand.

Bolwerk April 13, 2011 - 11:12 am

It’s more like a conservative city in a liberal country. New York has refused reforms even as more right-wing places have pulled them off. We aren’t Lockean. We’re almost Burkian.

I don’t really see the point of congestion-based pricing on the subway. Congestion on the subway needs to be meteoric before it starts making the system impossible, and even the Lex line is hardly at that point. It doesn’t parallel well to auto congestion, which pollutes, smells, means the fewest people taking up the most space, encourages antisocial behavior (road rage and honking), greatly harms the economy, drives up retail prices, is expensive to subsidize, and promotes poor health. On the subway, capacity can be pretty easily adjusted as rides increase with little long-term externalities. As Alon said, it’s kind of a value matter, and I think most of us value that an affordable ride is possible for the greatest number of people.

Generally, usage has gone in the right direction since the introduction of MCs, free bus<->subway transfers, and capital emphasis on subway-to-subway connections, since the late 1990s. It seems a major issue has simply been the state letting the MTA get away with not keeping labor costs under control. Buses starting being used more because the per-fare cost dropped in half for many riders, which means that the buses are not going to waste.

Here’s a zone-based fare proposal to consider: treat the five boroughs as zone 1, and move out radially from there. There’s no reason not to properly integrate commuter rail.

Hank April 12, 2011 - 11:05 am

You’re also ignoring the huge economic benefit of having a highly mobile workforce that doesn’t need cars and the appurtenant QOL benefits.

AlexB April 12, 2011 - 8:37 am

The whole point of zone based fares is that train cost money to run. The farther they go, the more they cost. The longer one person rides the same train, the more passenger miles (and therefore money) they are consuming.

Of course a zone system is less equitable; it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about NYC, London, or any other city. It punishes poor people more than rich people (as a percentage of income) to take jobs further from where you live. Sometimes taking a far away job is someone’s only option.

However, having a flat fare also punishes the MTA. Why would they ever expand the system outwards? Their new customers are likely to eat up more passenger miles than their current customers, but the MTA isn’t seeing any extra revenue. If you want to extend the Nostrand line to Kings Plaza, the Flushing line to Bayside, or the Dyre Ave line to New Rochelle, your argument would be stronger if we had a zone based system.

Finally, if a zone system were adopted, basing it on Borough boundaries would be a HORRIBLE idea. To think that a trip from Long Island City to Midtown would cost more than a trip from Inwood misses the whole point of zone based pricing. If you want people to immediately assume the system is classist, then draw the zones at the borough boundaries.

al April 12, 2011 - 8:43 pm

There could be another way to reduce congestion and increase fare revenue. The high cost of business/COL can slow or push elsewhere economic activity, growth, and innovation. NYC could use several low-medium cost business (and R&D) hubs/corridors in the outer boroughs to compete with the suburbs, and other cities around the country/world. They could be over rail yards, and near train stations. Some of it requires NYC DCP cooperation (rezoning) but the MTA could do a lot on its own. Job concentrations outside but near NYC CBD are very attractive to business as they offer NYC without the $70-100/sq ft prices.

The key benefits for the MTA are:
Increase passenger load without increasing vehicle miles or operating staff. Alighting passengers outside of Manhattan at these job centers leaves more space peak direction downstream. Higher demand in counter peak direction will fill up the empty trains.
possible large recurring rental and lease revenue to bolster operating and capital budgets.

Having more jobs outside CBD will necessitate connector ring lines. The Triboro RX would be a good start but more non Manhattan CBD fast connectors (JFK to BX, North SI to Triboro Rx) will be necessary.

Eric F. April 12, 2011 - 8:45 am

Can’t this map be applied for another purpose? Why not set fares based in part on community income? For example, roundtrips that originate in a poor area could cost $2, while roundtrips that originate on the upper east side could cost $4? One of the problems with the current system is that there is an indiscriminate subsidy applied to people who don’t need it, which cust the subsidy available to those who could really use it. Obviously, such a system as I outline is not foolproof. NYC in its wisdom has plunked down projects on the upper east/west sides as well as in more uniformly poor areas, but it’s better than what we have now. Note that the system already charges differing fares for the elderly and students, so as a technical matter it’s probably fairly easy to implement.

pete April 12, 2011 - 1:26 pm

Then the rich people will drive to the poor station neighborhoods to park, and real estate agents will sell apartments with “near low fare subway station” in the ad and its a scam after 6 months.

Bolwerk April 13, 2011 - 11:33 am

Given that round trips are already more than $4 for everybody, that’s a drop in revenue. :-p

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines April 12, 2011 - 9:06 am

[…] What If the Subways Went Back to a Zone-Based Fare? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Ed April 12, 2011 - 9:22 am

Do a reverse zone fare. If you swipe your card through a Manhattan turnstyle, you get charged two rides instead of one.

Who takes the hit? Tourists and people making trips from Manhattan to the outer boroughs. If you live in an outer borough and you take the train to Manhattan, you pay the higher fare when you return home. People living in Manhattan, who are wealthier than the rest of the population, also get hit. People only traveling in the outer boroughs escape, as do monthly metrocard holders, who are presumably the people who absolutely need to use the subway to get to work.

You can make what adjustments you want to the Manhattan bus fares and the monthly metrocard fares later. This would work better, however, combined with tolls on the East River bridges.

pea-jay April 12, 2011 - 10:29 am

I like this idea. It’s simple, relatively easy to do as it doesnt introduce new zone schemes. Won’t require new equipment outside fare control to credit back money or exit swipes to leave through a turnstile. Doesnt have to be twice as much, even just 50% more would accomplish alot.

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 2:29 pm

Who died and made Harlem wealthy?

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 3:35 pm

White Yuppies.

Brian April 12, 2011 - 5:07 pm

Yea, but what about the rest of the lower-income areas of the city, if many of them are minorities? South Bronx, Corona, Washington Heights, Bed-Stuy/Bushwick/Crown Heights, East New York, etc?

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 5:08 pm

Central Harlem is only 6% white, as of about 2007. Try again.

Matthias April 13, 2011 - 11:51 am

Poor white residents, students, etc. aren’t going to be able to pay a double fare either. Stop assuming that all Manhattanites are rich.

Ed April 12, 2011 - 9:25 am

Incidentally, there is a mistake in doing a straight comparison with the London tube and the New York subways. The Tube, which goes deep into the suburbs, functions as a commuter rail system as well as what we think of as a “subway” system. In New York, we think of commuter rail (Metronorth, LIRR, New Jersey Transit) as a separate entity, even though parts of the commuter rail system are also under the MTA. And last time I checked, MetroNorth and LIRR riders did pay higher fares than subway users.

AlexB April 12, 2011 - 11:30 am

What about the A train to Far Rockaway, or the 5 to Dyre Ave? They may be within city limits, but they are definitely in the suburbs and function like commuter trains.

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 2:34 pm

Um, no. London has a very large commuter rail network, one that in terms of frequency, staffing, fare collection, etc. is a lot more like the Rockaway branches than like the LIRR and Metro-North. It even has a mode-blind fare system on rail – the commuter rail network just extends a few fare zones farther out of Central London than the Underground. It’s not like New York, with its steam-era legacy of separate fare networks.

Bg April 12, 2011 - 9:26 am

The other reason that the station exits is an issue is because New York’s station exits work very differently from those in London or DC: in those systems you typically need to take a long escalator ride to the surface before you swipe out, which spreads out the traffic from an arriving train, and also results in only one or two exit points per station, whereas in New York, the exit turnstile is often on the same platform as the train, and there are often multiple exits per platform. So, at a station like Bergen or Carroll on the F, the current Brooklyn-bound platform exit capacity is designed to accommodate lots of people rushing off the trains and out in surges, while the Manhattan-bound platform is designed with more turnstiles (though even then, there’s no assumption of a huge flood of people arriving in the station at once, as there is when everyone gets off the train).

So the net result is that a lot of mostly-exit platforms, where people are headed away from the city, would need many, many more turnstiles, unless there were to be huge lines to exit every time a train arrives.

I also question the assertion that the turnstiles can be reconfigured to accept exit swipes. Maybe they have that capability but right now, on both the standard turnstile and the HEETs, the exiting passenger can’t even reach the card swipe slot. At the least, a new card-reading mechanism would have to be installed on the other side, or some of the turnstiles flipped around.

This does raise one small other benefit of zones: the need to swipe out forces a handy degree of traffic flow control onto stations in London and DC. Since most turnstiles in those cities are one way only (though they can be changed by time of day or demand), you avoid the awkwardness we run into in New York when a big group of people are waiting on both sides of a bank of turnstiles and it’s not clear which side should use which lanes.

pea-jay April 12, 2011 - 10:32 am

this is a big issue. But it can be gotten around by charging full price to everyone and credit back once you leave the system (get through the bottle neck).

Or you could do Ed’s idea and charge higher entry rates for manhattan stations and not worry about swiping out at all.

Bg April 12, 2011 - 9:57 am

You could also run into issues since all the station exit points in London and DC are, I believe, staffed at all times–easier since they have fewer, farther-apart stations than we do, and their stations have fewer entrances and exits than ours do. (In London, there are even cases like Green Park or Oxford Circus where stops on three very busy lines all converge to a single entry-exit area.) In New York, on the other hand, we have lots of stations where each direction is its own separate fare control. Wouldn’t you need more staff in the stations in the places it’s been removed to date? What happens if you’re on an unstaffed platform trying to get out and your Metrocard isn’t working?

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 10:16 am

This proposal is not exactly the best way to get folks out of their cars and onto the subway: charge them more for not having enough money to buy a $1.5 million condo in Manhattan.

And why exactly does it cost more to run a subway to Bay Ridge or Pelham Bay than it does to go from City Hall to 125th St? Do MTA employees get paid more to drive a train to the Bronx? Is the wear-n-tear on trains all that more after going under the East River? Wash Hts to Fulton St on the “A” train is a good 13 miles, the same distance from Bay Ridge to Midtown on the BMT. Will uptown IND riders have to pay the same as a Bay Ridge commuter?

All a moot point, since it’ll never happen.

pea-jay April 12, 2011 - 10:34 am

electricity consumption. just like longer bus or car trip consumes more gasoline/diesel a longer subway trip uses more electricity. Can’t say how much though.

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 10:52 am

Fair enough. So does a train going from Flushing to Times Square use more electricity than one going from Bowling Green to 125th St? If you’re going to charge by distance, than the arbitrary borough border plan has to be scrapped. Charging for pure distance (x dollars for x miles traveled) is the only way to go. But as mentioned in Ben’s article, some poor cleaning lady who lives in the Rockaways or Bushwick will pay more for her subway ride than a stockbroker in Battery Park City who works in Midtown. Not exactly a fair fare, is it?

AlexB April 12, 2011 - 11:34 am

That makes perfect sense. However, how do you determine distance? Is it measured in a straight line or in terms of how far the train would travel?

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 11:37 am

I would imagine train travel vs straight line. Forest Hills to Fresh Pond Road in Queens is only about 2 miles in a straight line vs 12 miles or so on via the “M” train. If the goal is to increase revenue for the MTA, then straight line doesn’t matter.

Alon Levy April 13, 2011 - 2:34 am

On the systems I know of, it’s invariably by train distance, with some tweaks in case there are multiple paths between two stations.

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 2:41 pm

Sure… so let’s take a borough-based plan off the table, which I’m perfectly fine with. Set a central zone consisting of Manhattan up to 59th Street, with stations at 59th deemed to be part of both zone 1 and zone 2, whichever costs less (this has precedent in other cities, including London). Don’t overdo it – excluding the Rockaways, the subway shouldn’t have more than 3 or maybe 4 zones, with zones farther out reserved for commuter trains.

Or just deem the entire subway network to be flat-fare, like in Paris, even when the corresponding commuter station is outside the central zone.

petey April 12, 2011 - 10:34 am

a problem with any CB based analysis is that the population is actually very mixed by income in many places. my mother lives on the UES but is on a fixed income consisting of social security and savings, and there are thousands like her. i know that the CB-pricing idea isn’t being pushed here, but i wanted to make that point.

“It penalizes people because there isn’t enough space on the island of Manhattan for all of us.”

being a manhattanite i understand how penalizing it is not to be able to live in manhattan 🙂

Benjamin Kabak April 12, 2011 - 10:37 am

I know that the CB-based analysis isn’t the best, but even if you did it by zip code, there is disparity across every zip code. That’s why I went with median annual income. This data was the most readily available and it graphs generally way to neighborhoods. Unless the city is 100 percent segregated by income, rich and poor will leave together.

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 10:55 am

“Unless the city is 100 percent segregated by income, rich and poor will leave together.”

You got that right Ben! If zone-based fares are implemented, we’d all LEAVE the city in droves 🙂

Benjamin Kabak April 12, 2011 - 11:03 am

Hah! Freudian slip. I meant “live.”

Phil April 12, 2011 - 11:02 am

What would happen with unlimited passes with a reverse zone? Would we have Manhattan and non-Manhattan cards, or would they assume that trips into Manhattan will occur and be priced higher initially?

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 11:17 am

Why Manhattan vs non-Manhattan? Why not Bronx vs non-Bronx? Why charge more to enter Manhattan? Is this congestion pricing for subway riders? Kinda defeats the purpose of getting more folks to ride the subway. Actually it’d be a great way to get commuters to buy a car and drive to the city!

Bolwerk April 13, 2011 - 11:57 am

And we all know how much drivers hate covering their own costs!

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 2:42 pm

Unlimited passes can cost different amounts, based on which zones they’re valid for. Look up Tokyo fares on Hyperdia, or Paris and Berlin fares on Google.

JAzumah April 12, 2011 - 11:32 am

Zone subway fares are illegal under the 1965 law that created the MTA.

Benjamin Kabak April 12, 2011 - 12:27 pm

That’s besides the point. Laws can easily be changed, no?

JAzumah April 13, 2011 - 10:52 am

No, they cant. It’s Albany, remember? Passing laws are secondary up there.

It’s actually not besides the point. Parity is a big deal in NYC and it manifests itself often in “equal” provision of services. Politicians try to gain advantages by constantly claiming disadvantage in some form. The only legal zone for now would be a bus to suubway premium and maybe it might be time for that to come back if things get too tough.

Alon Levy April 14, 2011 - 3:15 am

I agree. The city should stop trying to imitate those stupid modern European ideas of single fares. Let’s charge people for transfers, and while we’re at it also go back to steam trains.

pete April 12, 2011 - 1:44 pm

hmmmmmm? can you elaborate?

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 2:14 pm

Legislatures routinely change laws as times/conditions change. Slavery used to be the law of the land; now it ain’t. Medical coverage used to be optional; by 2014 it’ll be mandatory. Congress used to be the only body that could declare war; now any idiot President can do so with impunity.

Things change (sometimes not for the better).

JAzumah April 13, 2011 - 10:56 am

The President cannot legally declare war. We have the ability to cut that out tomorrow if we wanted to as a nation. In addition, universal healthcare was struck down in February and when the Obama administration ignored them, the judge made it clear that federal law better by honored by the feds if they want peace.

Needless to say, the more things change, the more they say the same.

pete April 13, 2011 - 5:09 pm

There have been no wars in the world since WW2. The UN has been a phenomenal success.

SEAN April 12, 2011 - 11:32 am

1. If you ride completely outside the CBD you pay 25 cents per station you pass i,e Jay Street Metrotech to Forest Hills, via the F, but since you wouldn’t be exiting at any station within the CBD you wouldn’t be charged ANY aditional fare until you reach stations in

Queens. Roosevelt Island station counts as the CBD do to it being in the 63rd Street tunnel.
2. If you travel to & from the CBD you are charged an an aditional amount such as $3 over the 25 cents above.
3. If you ride within the CBD you are only charged the $3 base or what ever it would be.
4. The CBD is anything from 63rd Street & below. this insures all crosstown lines are accounted for.
5. Monthly Metrocards & multy ride train passes with Metrocards on the back wouldn’t be charged zones do to purchaces of bulk rides.
6. reduced fare Metrocards would be charged half or less.

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 11:40 am

However, many residents live in the CBD, so it’s not truly a business only district. A fare structure such as this actually discourages riders from entering the CBD via subway, which is antithetical to the MTA’s whole reason for being. You actually want riders to get into town via public transit, not charge them more for doing so.

Antithetical = ferryboi got a new dictionary for Christmas 🙂

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 2:45 pm

Sure, but in terms of marginal costs, the MTA would rather have more reverse-peak, off-peak, and off-CBD ridership. In addition, it is more competitive on the peak-hour-to-Manhattan market, so it doesn’t need to lower fares as much to compete with cars.

(That’s the principle – the practice is very different; cost-conscious customers already ride transit even for completely inconvenient runs.)

BBnet3000 April 12, 2011 - 12:25 pm

Has this been done elsewhere in the US, other than the systems that operate as a subway and commuter train (dc metro and BART)? The only examples i know of are large cities like LA that use a lot of transfers. I dont know how this plays out geographically, but sufficit to say from far enough out youre paying 2x the base fare.

On BART (i think DC metro is the same way), within the denser areas (San Francisco, and also Oakland/Berkeley) the fare is flat, and in the suburban areas the fare continues increasing out farther.

Id love to see a Subway ridership map. How much ridership is in Manhattan? On BART, a huge portion of ridership is in the dense areas (40% of ridership is intra-SF, despite it only having stations in Downtown and the Mission district). On DC Metro its fairly similar, with a few denser suburbs (Arlington, etc) having a majority of ridership outside of DC itself.

Ultimately a city the size of New York probably needs some kind of zoned scheme, but lets face it, transit has a social welfare aspect in the US, even in NYC where middle class and above people ride it. Lets phase this in and not screw anybody over.

ferryboi April 12, 2011 - 12:40 pm

Or we can stop spending trillions of dollars on useless, useless, useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and put some of that cash toward transit, health care, environmental concerns, etc.

God Bless the USA!

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 2:47 pm

Copy-paste data from here into Excel and add it up.

Edward April 12, 2011 - 4:04 pm

“Ultimately a city the size of New York probably needs some kind of zoned scheme…”

Why? The MTA will find many ways to waste any additional money they collect, and the riders paying more will be penalized for no good reason. It’s lose-lose and will never see the light of day anyway.

Alon Levy April 12, 2011 - 5:09 pm

I actually meant what I said about consensus, near the beginning of the thread. A change in the fare scheme can (and generally should) be revenue-neutral, reducing the fare on some while raising it on others. It could even be bundled with a net fare cut, if the MTA chooses to reduce the fare, just as it could be bundled with a net fare hike.

BBnet3000 April 12, 2011 - 9:10 pm

Should it be revenue-neutral? Id have thought that just the time to introduce such a scheme would be when a fare increase has to happen. This way, such an increase could apply to the people who cost the system more money.

Alon Levy April 13, 2011 - 2:32 am

No, when you need to hike fares, you should just hike the fares, based on pre-agreed values. For example, I argue that the MTA should, as a matter of both principle and collection cost reduction, offer large unlimited monthly discounts, by means of hiking the unlimited monthly fare less than the single-ride and pay-per-ride fares. If the MTA has already gone to zone-based fare, then it should be acceptable to choose to hike some zones more than others, depending on whether the goal is to charge per distance, to decongest Manhattan, or conversely to reduce the difference between zone prices.

ant6n April 12, 2011 - 9:51 pm

I think using the Paris model might make more sense:
– integrate the fares of the commuter rails and the city proper
– The subway system becomes zone1, and only has entry turn styles
– the commuter rail system has multiple zones, and has entry and exit turn styles

Of course this should probably also mean that the commuter rails would have to be operated closer to the RER for this to make sense.

One could also use the Berlin system – there’s three zones, A,B,C, with A+B being the city proper, A being the inner ring, and C some area outside. They only sell tickets for AB, BC and ABC. The whole system uses POP, so you have to have a valid ticket for any place that you are travelling. Switching to POP is probably not going to happen, though, especially since so many people still use single ride tickets.

Matthias April 13, 2011 - 12:37 pm

Do you mean equalizing subway and commuter rail fares within the city?

Commuter rail is already POP essentially (the charge for buying onboard is high, but not high enough to pay for the conductors)–you suggest switching to turnstiles?

I would like to see commuter rail made easier to use in the city (higher frequency, pay by Metrocard, etc.)–similarly to RER in Paris, as you mention.

Bolwerk April 13, 2011 - 3:49 pm

It’s probably illegal to do it perfectly, at least until the FRA loosens up, but the right system would equalize fares based on distance and be mode-agnostic. That means if you take the LIRR to Flushing from Manhattan, it would cost the same as taking the 7 to Flushing.

Either turnstiles or POP on commuter rail could make sense, but the work rules on the LIRR seem more entrenched than in NYCTA. It’d be a tough fight, if anyone were even talking about it outside of blogs and usenet groups.

ant6n April 13, 2011 - 8:47 pm

Paris actually uses a mixture of POP and turnstiles on the RER system. Stations within the city proper have turnstiles, and faraway stations use POP. Which actually makes sense – the farther away, smaller, surface stations souldn’t require the extra resources of installing turn-stiles and making sure people cannot enter. At the same time, fare inspections are probably easier.

Alon Levy April 14, 2011 - 3:31 am

Does the RATP-operated RER actually have POP, or is it just the legacy Transilien lines?

ant6n April 14, 2011 - 9:05 am

I don’t really know many suburban stations in Paris (no reason to travel there). The only station I remember for sure didn’t have turnstiles is Lozere, where the Polytechnique is. Wiki says it’s RATP.

Alon Levy April 14, 2011 - 3:31 am

NY-area commuter rail most definitely doesn’t use POP. Conductors are supposed to check every ticket on every train, whereas in POP, inspections are random, in order to reduce labor costs.

POP works best with very large unlimited monthly discounts, because then passengers are already prepaid and have no incentive to cheat; passengers who need to buy single-ride tickets every time have an incentive to dodge the fare if there’s a line at the vending machine or if the train is just arriving.

The important part of modernizing commuter rail in New York isn’t the details of how to pay. It’s choosing a method that doesn’t require conductors, and that’s easy to use by a subway rider, without an additional charge for transfers.

Bolwerk April 14, 2011 - 1:09 pm

In POP, you should be able to buy your fare when you board.

Alon Levy April 14, 2011 - 7:02 pm

The collection costs for that are too high, unless you’re talking about putting a card reader that will instantly validate your ride and deduct the single-ride fare from your card. (Such card readers can be disabled just before the inspectors board.)

Bolwerk April 15, 2011 - 10:47 pm

Why would they be significantly higher than on the platform? It’s the norm in parts of Germany. I would think it would save on collection costs, since then all TVM maintenance could be done at one station on the line – and presumably there are fewer cars than stations on systems where POP works best.

IBO: Bridge tolls could generate $970 million :: Second Ave. Sagas April 13, 2011 - 12:38 am

[…] report seems particularly relevant today after my recent discussion on distance-based fares. While I do not advocate for a zone system for New York’s subways, tolling the bridges would […]

Bruce April 14, 2011 - 10:48 pm

This has been somewhat mentioned already, but if we’re talking about modifying the fare system to produce more revenue, we should also think about what behavior we want less of. At the margins, raising the price of transit will push people into other forms of transportation. When viewed under that lens, a straight distance based zone system does not seem like a particularly useful proposal. The further away from CBD of manhattan one lives, the more likely one is to have a car. Thus, unless we implemented tolling on the east river bridges at the same time as we implemented a distance based zone system, at the margins we would be pushing more people to commute into Manhattan by car. Which is about the last thing we want to do.

The reverse zone system (rides originating in manhattan cost more) avoids that particular problem, but at the margins, it will probably just push people to game the system. (ie: take the cable car to roosevelt island before catching the F). Though it might also motivate more people who live in manhattan to walk or bike more.

Perhaps a more useful thought is to take a cue from congestion pricing and raise prices during the rush hours. I’m not sure it’s possible with the current system, but moving to contact-less payment is in the (very slow) works and a new system should be able to vary price by time. At the margins this would tend to push people to commute outside of the most congested hours (a net benefit). And if one were concerned about the impact on those least able to pay, we could earmark some of the added revenue to subsidizing metrocards for people close to the poverty line. Or alternatively, earmark some of the revenue for outer-borough bus service.

Implementation gets tricky with unlimited cards, but perhaps there could be two tiers: one that works all day and one that only works outside of rush. Or perhaps (not sure if this is possible with the current system) there additional dollars could reside on the card as well and there could simply be a surcharge for travel during rush. Also, ideally, to avoid pushing people into commuting by car, an auto congestion fee/east river tolling would be put into place at the same time. If it were a higher surcharge than the mta rush surcharge, it would still push people into transit.

ant6n April 15, 2011 - 10:16 am

Back in Europe there are cities with 9am and/or 10am tickets, which are cheaper, and only valid after that time – the evening rush hour tends to be more spread, and people going after 9 or 10 probably also don’t use transit during the afternoon rush.
It seems in Europe they are far ahead with all sorts of creative ticketing, integrated tickets, company/university tickets, etc. It’s a bit strange, since those things are not very expensive to implement, but can help shape the ridership.

Ken December 25, 2011 - 8:55 pm

Why not move to distance based fares, but at the same time give discounted fares for those who qualify?

Think about it; 80-90% of the population can afford distance fares running on a “pay less for shorter rides, pay more for longer rides” concept. The other 10-20% which consists of seniors, childrens, disabled, and low-income can just pay 1/2 of the distance fare. We already have a system of concession fare rates as it is today. Why not just apply that to distance fares as well?

If it costs $1.50 to ride the subway for 3 miles, those who qualify for concessions only pays 75 cents. If it’s going to cost $5.00 to ride the subway for the full length, those who qualify for concessions then pays only $2.50.

The visual case against zone fares :: Second Ave. Sagas April 17, 2013 - 12:52 am

[…] I last delved into the issue, I discussed the city’s economic distribution of households. Zone fares work elsewhere […]


Leave a Comment